President Bush has tried to justify the warrantless tapping of Americans' phone calls by saying that the government only listened to calls with Al Qaeda suspects overseas. Now it turns out that the government is collecting records on untold numbers of domestic calls, for no clear purpose other than to detect patterns. So far, none of the sources that described this practice to USA Today has said these calls are being recorded, but it is a violation of individual privacy to have this information collected, especially when it is done without the knowledge of the public and a vote of authorization by Congress.
The lack of public outrage after the revelation that overseas calls were being tapped without the court warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act suggests that Bush succeeded in persuading most Americans that the bugging was not aimed at them. The newly disclosed practice, however, does include the telephone records of ordinary Americans. Congress, which has so far acquiesced in skirting FISA, should now force the administration to explain this data-mining. If Congress decides it is worthwhile, it must establish a legal framework for it.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Arlen Specter, promises hearings that will include as witnesses the executives of AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, the three companies that have collaborated with the National Security Agency on this. Testimony from the companies will be needed because it is likely the Bush administration will stonewall efforts to force John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, or officials from the NSA to describe and justify the program. Just this week, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility had to give up trying to investigate the NSA's wiretapping program because of a lack of cooperation from the agency.
The data-mining report casts a shadow over Bush's nomination of General Michael Hayden to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hayden led the NSA after Sept. 11 when it began the tapping of Al Qaeda suspects' calls and the collecting of domestic telephone records. In his confirmation hearing, he will have to explain and justify both the data-mining of the records and why the administration found it necessary to set aside a sensible wiretap law that allows the NSA to get a warrant as much as 72 hours after the fact.
The administration has set the NSA loose on these projects to head off another Sept. 11. But one lesson of Sept. 11 is that intelligence agencies had excellent information in their hands and did not know what to do with it. Before individuals sacrifice the privacy of their phone records, they deserve to know that they won't simply be added to unexplored mountains of data that are too vast and formless to be interpreted properly.
© 2006 The Boston Globe